“Creating Community Through Arts and Culture”

The following is a transcript of prepared remarks Chautauqua Institution President Thomas Becker made at Hilton Head Island Institute’s three-day ideas festival ImagiNation 2013 conference on Oct. 24, 2013. The Hilton Head Island Institute is modeled in part on Chautauqua Institution.


Governor Haley, Mayor Laughlin, Chairman Ward, Director Alderman and all of the board members and organizers of the Hilton Head Institute, it is a great honor for me and for the Institution I represent to join you for this first-ever gathering of ImagiNation 2013.

It is our ritual at CHQ to gather each June at the beginning of our nine-week season to reflect on the year past, to look forward to the inquiry and learning ahead of us as a community, and to recommit to our mission—namely, exploring the best in human values and the enrichment of life.

So much depends on the beginning—the tone and earnest reverence we bring to the launch of the season at CHQ. And I would respectfully suggest today that how you all begin these few days of inquiry, your openness to each other and to new ideas is also critical.

At CHQ, we try our best to practice civil dialogue, which means listening with our full attention to whoever is speaking. It means being willing to entertain the idea that any person who has a belief, idea or position that is counter to our own, might just be right. It means being willing to listen without simultaneously preparing a rebuttal to what is being said. It means being willing to sit in silence and reflect on what we are hearing and to ask questions that are open and honest rather than baiting the speaker. It means questioning our assumptions at every turn and trying to understand how we came to those assumptions. It also means we hold a high bar on clear and reasoned argument and an ongoing respect for the contest of ideas.

I have been asked to talk this morning about “Creating Community Through Arts and Culture,” and while CHQ is a community where the arts have a highly valued role, the second part of the equation—the cultural standards that have evolved over the years in our learning community—are equally, if not more, critical to our enterprise. Let me tell you a bit about that.    


It is significant that the headwaters or original source of CHQ’s culture came in 1874 from a preacher, John Heyl Vincent, and an inventor, Lewis Miller. These two men had a vision to which Chautauqua Institution has remained true for 140 years. Those early Chautauquans who followed the preacher and the inventor—mostly Methodist Sunday School teachers—agreed to come to the shores of Chautauqua Lake to create a learning community.

They came with the idea that learning does not stop at the end of formal schooling nor does learning only take place in a formal setting. Indeed, the founders of CHQ believed that learning might happen best for adults in a setting where natural beauty, informal conversation, recreation, shared meals and communal worship also take place.

As Vincent, the Methodist preacher once put it: “Oh, famous school—that built no marble halls, and collected no grand library, but turned all life into opportunity; made houses and streets and seaside and mountain-tops, places of discipline and recitation and delight!”


Today and for many years, CHQ has been a gated community, accessible by the purchase of a gate pass of some duration that covers nearly every event happening on the grounds in that time period. Even today, CHQ stands alone in a pastoral landscape and remains a good distance from any major urban center. It is therefore a retreat from the rest of the world. Many original buildings from the early years are preserved, so that the grounds offer a vivid view of the past, while also giving us the opportunity to reflect on our future as a nation and a society. It is, in short, an island for learning, not unlike your aspirations for Hilton Head.


Each June we build our community anew with individuals coming to the grounds who represent families that have been in summer residence for six or more generations and every year newcomers who are experiencing the Institution for the first time.


Together we are united in the commitment to understand more of our inner and outer worlds; to reflect on our obligations to one another; to practice the values that must reside within a civil society; and to expose our children and grandchildren to a community of lifelong learning. One of the greatest gifts of CHQ is the opportunity for children to witness adults, of every age, learning and to see that exercise as at once rigorous and enthusiastic.

Chautauquans make it a daily practice to talk to one another across our differences of faith, political party, geography, age and temperament. We see this engagement as a discipline and an obligation. An annual practice. It takes a lot of practice! We don’t always live up to our own standards.


We also embrace the arts, participate in their creation, and affirm the development of young artists through our summer schools of music, voice, dance, visual art, our opera company, our resident symphony and student orchestra, and the Chautauqua Theater Company. This gathering of artists powerfully expresses the creative process at work. Further, these artists inform one another’s capacity to interpret their art by appreciating the interpretive disciplines and skills of one another’s artistic genre. Creativity and collaboration are gifts the arts offer a society in need of these characteristics for our competitive edge.


Children and young people at CHQ have access to our Children’s School and our Boys’ and Girls’ Club where they learn to swim and sail and follow the themes and ideas their elders are learning about every morning in our daily lecture series.

At the root of all this activity is our commitment to engage in vigorous moral reasoning, so as to awaken the restlessness of reason and to demonstrate our keen understanding that reverence is the highest expression of freedom.


I should say, right here and now, that beyond our moral reasoning, beyond our emphasis at CHQ on the ethical dimensions of human enterprise, CHQ also embraces the mysterious, the holy, and the spiritual. The presence of a space for daily worship, with multiple faith traditions represented, and the regular recognition of our humble role in the face of Creation, is part of the essential glue that does not divide, but rather holds our learning community together.


Disney Inc., when they came to study CHQ in the 1980s as they were trying to develop their own brand of lifelong learning called the Disney Institute, realized they could not replicate the long and deep spiritual aspect of CHQ.


Today, you all gather here in a most glorious seaside environment in which the human hand and the hand of nature are always palpable. You all have expressed a strong commitment to the generation of fresh ideas, to innovative thinking, and to encouraging that magical chemistry of creativity that sparks when smart people gather together and share ideas. But I also encourage you to make time and space for silence and reflection, for spiritual expansiveness, and for appreciation of all that is around us that is not human made.


In addition to the forces of Nature, there is also a human history on this island—a history of power and privilege and of poverty and enslavement. That history still dwells in the sand and lurks in the thickets of palm and palmetto. This memory must not be buried, but recognized and reconciled alongside the wealth of ideas and new history being made here today.

Ours is a most challenging time, when political discourse has fractured our country—when lines of division are so often more apparent than what binds us together. The impulse to begin something as fresh as ImagiNation 2013 is commendable and essential. We all arrive here awash in information, overwhelmed by communication delivered electronically.

But here we gather face to face. Nothing could be so important and increasingly rare. We are drowning in data, but famished for meaning. Today you needn’t travel at all in order to be in contact with the furthest reaches of our globe. We employ the labor of a global community. We sell and trade across almost all geographic boundaries. We tweet, OMG I know not of what I tweet.

But how often do we really talk, reveal our essential selves, ponder our fears, and imagine ourselves toward a different kind of future?

Before the horrible gridlock in Washington that brought us to another recent precipice, we experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I want to read you a quote about facing up to tough economic times.

“Now we have come to the place in history when we are deciding how our whole civilization is going to develop. … It may be that no one is ever again going to make as much, for instance, in this country, as they did during our years of great prosperity. It may be that many people are not going to reach certain heights of luxury again. It may be that many employers are going to have to be content with smaller returns on invested capital. And undoubtedly people are going to suffer. That is the unfortunate part of all change. The only thing we can do is try to direct the change in such a way as to minimize the suffering.”

That statement is from a speech delivered at CHQ in 1933 by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the newly elected President. It makes you wonder whether these remarks were vetted by the White House.

Sometimes I think nothing has changed and sometimes I think everything has changed. Both statements are probably true. But let us take for a moment a metaphor of the Native American tradition, the value of sitting or dancing in a circle around a fire.

Beyond us is the darkness, the unknown, with all its hazards. As we sit in the circle, all of us have our backs to the darkness. We are facing each other by the light of a bright and warm fire. In essence, whatever the danger might be beyond us, as long as we sit in the circle, I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine. The fire in the center, let’s say, is what we have come to study together. And each of us, because of our positions around the fire, has a different angle on the subject of our study. We each by definition see the fire differently.

So let us remember that each of us gathered here to focus on what is before us, is seeing the center from a different angle, a different viewpoint that is essential if our circle is to be made whole.

At CHQ, each of the arts disciplines we support brings a special angle, a special way of seeing or hearing or experiencing the topics we put at the center of each of our nine weeks.   The theologians and preachers who come to speak bring another angle. Our lecturers and thought leaders from around the world bring other stories. And every Chautauquan has their own opinion, too, let me tell you!

Putting the metaphor another way, if there are 300 people here this week at Hilton Head participating in ImagiNation 2013, then there will be 300 different seminars going on. That is the richness of gathering shoulder to shoulder and face to face. That is, indeed, the human condition.

And if the 140 years of such gatherings at CHQ are any example, we can, like Jacob and the Angel, each wrestle a blessing from this experience and help hold back the darkness that surrounds us. Look deeply into the fire and into each other.

Traditions and communities share a need for ritual. One of the oldest such rituals at CHQ is the ceremonial opening and closing of our season, our annual assembly. We honor this moment by dedicating our individual and collective effort and by tapping a gavel three times. So to close, I bring to you this gift from CHQ: a gavel for this, your first, of what will be a long and celebrated effort by the people of Hilton Head.

The people of CHQ wish you a wonderful journey.